Latest Reviews
Thursday
Aug072014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I don’t remember a world when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t exist. I had just turned one year old when the original cartoon debuted in 1987 and it was, to my recollection, the first thing outside of friends and family that I fell in love with. I’ve watched every show and movie, played every video game, read many of the comics and even owned much of the merchandise; boxes of various Ninja Turtles paraphernalia are still resting underneath my bed, in my closet and in my attic. While I’ve abandoned much of my childhood loves, the Ninja Turtles are the one thing I still enjoy to this day.

Couple my admiration with pre-release reports of a troubled production and various other controversies and I became sure the newest movie, succinctly titled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” was going to be a disaster. After all, if they could change the design of the heroes in a half-shell to something so atrocious, surely the rest of the filmmaking decisions would follow suit. I didn’t want to, but I was ready to trash this film if the final product called for it. However, nothing pleases me more than to say that such negativity is unwarranted. Although the design of the Turtles have changed, their personalities remain intact. This is an impressive, action packed film with some terrific humor and an expectedly hokey plot that is both to its benefit and detriment. This new movie won’t convert non-fans, but if they can look past the visual changes, longtime devotees will find much to love.

April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is a television reporter in New York City who has been relegated to fluff stories. Much like any young reporter, she longs to make her big break with an independent investigation on the local criminal organization, the Foot Clan. She gets too close to the story, however, and finds herself stuck in a bad situation, only to be rescued by vigilante heroes that nobody has seen before. Her focus quickly turns to them and she ends up discovering that those vigilantes are actually mutated, walking, talking turtles. Pleasantries will have to wait, though, because a threat is looming over the city. The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), the leader of the Foot Clan, is in cahoots with business mogul, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), and together they intend on taking over the city.

As far as story goes, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” isn’t the most creative, nor does it deviate much from the tried and true formula set forth all those years ago in the original show: the Shredder hatches a ridiculous plan while the Turtles fight his goons and crack some jokes along the way, leading to a “close call” finale—when our heroes may or may not foil his plan at the very last second. This is all to be expected.

But as the old adage goes, it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey, and TMNT is filled with enough clever jokes (“That’s stupid” April says at one point after someone mistakes the Turtles as aliens, a clear reference to the pre-release controversy that suggested our heroes’ acronym may need to be modified to TANT, an unfortunate acronym depending on how one pronounces it) and surprisingly impressive action scenes to make that journey worthwhile. In modern cinema, ill-advised attempts to enhance the action through shaky camerawork and rapid editing have put a damper on what would otherwise serve up some serviceable excitement. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” for the most part at least, avoids this perplexing tactic. Things get hectic, sure, but the camerawork remains fluid; not once does it lose its way. A standout scene takes place on a snowy mountainside (though one must wonder where such a place exists in New York City), as the Turtles and their enemies slide downhill with all manner of chaos revolving around them. This sequence is well choreographed and extremely exciting, marking itself as one of the standout action scenes of the summer.

More interesting is that April’s connection to the Turtles extends beyond the “damsel in distress” role she has been relegated to in previous Turtles iterations. While I hesitate to explain what that connection is out of fear of spoilers, it nevertheless makes her inclusion in the narrative more integral than she has been in the past. In this movie, April O’Neal is a strong female character, a fearless reporter that has dreams of becoming more and not settling for mediocrity. She’s more than just a pretty face, despite what Megan Fox’s casting may suggest, even if the actress isn’t entirely believable in the role.

For fans of the franchise, the largest deficiency will undoubtedly be the design of the characters. Only Splinter (mostly) retains his expected look while Shredder looks like a metallic Edward Scissorhands and the Turtles could rightfully be classified as the Teenage Mutant Hipster Turtles, their design obviously updated to appeal to the young kids out there as they wear sunglasses on their heads and puka shell necklaces around their necks while Donatello’s tech equipment is akin to those obnoxious Bluetooth devices many folks wear even when not actually using them. More than anything else, the character designs leave much to be desired.

Other minor nagging issues rear their ugly heads from time to time, like the voice casting of Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo, whose voice is far too recognizable and clearly stands out from the rest of the gang, and some childish humor that, even though it fits within the context of teenage immaturity, is worthy of little more than an eye roll and disgruntled sigh. Luckily, this type of humor is few and far between, serving only as a minor detour from the spot on self-deprecating and pop culture jokes.

There is much to like in this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Don’t let the pre-release controversy or lackluster trailers sway you; it is more than the sum of its parts. It may or may not work for the uninitiated, but Turtles fans are sure to have a good time.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles receives 4/5

Thursday
Aug072014

Into the Storm

Too often, a fundamental flaw pervades “natural disaster” movies: the focus tends to be on the destruction and chaos rather than the characters. Recent years have shown the physical and emotional devastation such events can cause to neighborhoods and families, so a movie about one of these events is ripe for hard hitting drama, but the characters that could bring that drama forth are usually relegated to supporting characters in relation to the storm, human fodder for its carnage. “Into the Storm” is no different. It tries to force some narrative angles in, but the final product is largely empty. If 2012’s “The Impossible” serves as an example of how to explore similar territory well, “Into the Storm” exemplifies its opposite.

The film follows the Titus Team, a crew of documentarians and storm chasers who have been tasked with capturing footage of a tornado. Most important among them is meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Pete (Matt Walsh), the latter of whom hopes to capture the first ever footage of the eye of the storm using new technology, including a tank-like vehicle that can stay grounded in winds up to 175 miles per hour. Lucky for them, a storm is brewing and it’s going to be a big one. Unluckily for the rest of the town, including the high schoolers attending their graduation ceremony nearby, the storm is growing far beyond what is expected and is certain to destroy their livelihood.

To its credit, “Into the Storm” at least tries to create interesting characters, even if it doesn’t know how to construct its narrative around them. An example comes from the relationship between Allison and her daughter hundreds of miles away, whom she talks and Skypes with on the phone. Similar to last year’s hit, “Gravity,” the mother/daughter angle is forced in to try to manufacture drama out of thin material (though that in no way implies Gravity is a bad movie—just to be clear, it is not), a cheap way to build characterization and trick the audience into caring about the person onscreen. It doesn’t work. One scene around the midway point shows Allison clutching to the door of that tank-like car as the winds threaten to pull her into the tornado. The unified feeling of apathy from the audience at my screening couldn’t have been more noticeable if we all simultaneously started yawning.

Only one sequence of events carries any dramatic impact. It revolves around Donnie (Max Deacon), son of the high school’s Vice Principal, Gary (Richard Armitage). He’s supposed to be filming the graduation ceremony, but passes the responsibility off to his younger brother so he can schmooze with his crush, Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), a character who is largely forgotten when this sequence ends. While at an abandoned factory, the storm hits and they find themselves trapped in a hole under rubble with no way to get out and water quickly culminating around them. With the very real possibility of death approaching, the two take the time to record their final testaments and it hits hard. The actors pull the scene off and the sense of hopelessness is crushing. Unfortunately, these moments are offset shortly after by contrived screenplay happenstances that I won’t delve into in case somebody actually wants to see this, but the primary thing to take away is that even when “Into the Storm” has something good going, it fails to realize it and effectively ruins it.

There are a handful of neat moments as the storm rages on, including a nice nod to the film all films of this ilk will be compared to, 1996’s “Twister,” but these moments are fleeting and don’t do enough to make up for the movie’s glaring deficiencies. These are stupid characters making stupid decisions while poorly delivering badly written dialogue. The storm is all there is, unless you count the bumbling redneck comic relief characters that repeatedly appear parallel to the professionals, the worst comic relief duo to pop up in a film since the paranormal investigators in “Insidious.”

Even worse, “Into the Storm” ends on a cheesy, message heavy and, more offensively, slightly happy note—sure, communities were destroyed and thousands of people just died, but hey, we recognize that person’s face from the beginning of the film! “Into the Storm” is a mess and with so many great films to see in theaters right now, why waste your time with it?

Into the Storm receives 1/5

Thursday
Jul172014

Boyhood

Writer/director Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Boyhood,” is tough to discuss because, while it is most certainly worth seeing, it’s difficult to determine if my admiration for it comes from my thinking it’s a great movie or merely a fascinating storytelling experiment. Filmed over the course of 12 years using the same actors as they naturally grew older, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a six year old adolescent to a college bound adult and it’s easy to relate to. To a certain extent, all who have lived through those years and experienced the highs and lows of growing up will see themselves in young Mason or his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). If other published reviews are any indication, it’s this strange feeling of seeing our lives (or at least a decent representation of them) onscreen that is garnering the film its acclaim. But step back and look at it from a filmmaking and narrative point of view, stripped from its unique 12 year shoot, and you start to see some rough edges.

These come in the way of a story that is fairly traditional, regardless of the unique way it was captured. There isn’t much here we haven’t seen before—a broken home, an unsure future, a young boy coming of age—though it isn’t these aspects themselves that don’t work. On the contrary, they work very well. Growing up is scary, especially if your childhood is surrounded by an unstable family, and making that transition to adulthood is one of uncertainty: of where we’re going, what we’ll do, who we’ll meet, who we’ll become or if we’ll find success in our endeavors. Perhaps more succinctly, will we be happy? It’s impossible to know and “Boyhood” captures this uneasiness perfectly.

Where it stumbles is in its redundancy and inability to explore key aspects of a young person’s life that is integral to who they eventually become. The latter issue can largely be excused. Even with a runtime of nearly three hours, it’s impossible to fit every life changing event in, though certain important topics are picked up and dropped so nonchalantly that they feel forced, almost as if Linklater felt compelled to include them, but had no idea what to do with them. The best example comes with its all-too-brief discussion on religion. A child’s spiritual journey, from believing what they’re told to figuring things out for themselves, is a big thing. Whether someone ultimately decides to keep their faith or abandon it (or discover it in this case, since Mason’s parents seem to have never introduced him to it) is a long and tough process that is glossed over inconsequentially here.

However, this is not the film’s focus, so it’s a minor issue. Less forgivable is its rush through certain periods of their lives, like when they discover their first stepfather’s completely out-of-left-field alcoholism, and its repeat of previous events; their second stepfather too proves himself to be an abusive alcoholic, though not a violent one like the first. There may be those out there who can relate to this (rare though they may be), but it leads to narrative staleness. The fear you’ll feel from their first encounter will likely be replaced by a weary shrug when it happens again. It seems like there was a narrative need to have their mother divorce this man to get the family back on their own, but why resort to the same approach as before? A simple explanation that the two had simply fallen out of love would have sufficed and is just as believable.

Nevertheless, this is a very good movie, the aforementioned flaws a minor part of its overall impressive (and lengthy) construction. In fact, it’s the little things that give the movie its poignancy: when Mason develops his first crush, experiences his first heartbreak and has to quickly decide how to respond to peer pressure. The latter scene will speak to everyone watching, regardless of their own personal choice, as they watch Mason give in and start drinking while a friend refuses and suffers the harsh, emasculating name calling, as if chugging a beer would somehow make him a man.

Other moments come and go, some happy, some sad and some so funny and tender they’ll likely arouse an unexpected laugh and smile out of you, particularly the sex talk Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, has with his sister, but the most impressive aspect of “Boyhood” is how it captures the time period, each year feeling like a brief snapshot in an era since passed. The characters play original Xbox systems, the soundtrack consists of music from the year represented, like a track off Blink-182’s 2001 album, “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket,” and the characters read the Harry Potter books, even dressing up as the characters later on during a book release event after the series has become a full blown phenomenon. It even pokes fun of these time periods, most notable in a 2008 section focusing on the election between Barack Obama and John McCain. At the time of filming, Linklater cleverly realized the extremes of the two sides as he portrays a Republican man smugly commenting that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and an overenthusiastic Democrat who supports Obama, but seems to have no idea why.

“Boyhood” captures not just the triumphs and tribulations of growing up, but also serves as a spot-on reminder of how our world has evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) over the last 12 years. It’s a little rough around the edges with a handful of blurry shots and some occasionally rigid performances (that get better as the kids get older) and its narrative can be a bit clunky, but it is nevertheless an accurate and engrossing representation of growing up. Individual moments never last for long and before you know it, those little kids have become full grown adults, a realization indicative of many of our own lives.

Ultimately, that’s the point of “Boyhood.” It realizes that life isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it goes by quick and the amalgamation of these moments make it worth living. As one character astutely points out late in the film, life isn’t necessarily about seizing the moment, as the old adage goes; after all, you can’t always control the situations life throws at you. Perhaps more appropriately, she says, it’s about letting the moment seize you.

Boyhood receives 4/5

Friday
Jul112014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Say what you want about their production values, particularly the cheesy, rubbery make-up the actors were forced to wear in the older films, but the “Planet of the Apes” series, at least thematically, is one of the best and most intelligent science fiction series ever created. Though not all were created equal, each movie had something fascinating to explore, but the first stands above the rest. With battling themes of science vs. religion and a controversial stance that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought (which remains controversial even to this day), “Planet of the Apes” cemented itself as a riveting, thought provoking science fiction film. The following films dealt with bigotry, slavery, war and more, which kept them interesting even as their overall quality declined.

The 2011 series comeback, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” attempted to explore similar ground, but lacked its predecessors’ profundity. The newest entry, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” similarly fails to make much of a thematic impression, but it’s a damn fine movie nonetheless, a summer spectacle full of mind-blowing action, wonderfully developed characters and a surprisingly emotional story you won’t soon forget. Even with its thematic deficiencies, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” can stand proud as the best film in the franchise since the 1968 original.

Ten years have passed since the last film and two since the last humans have been seen. The leader of the evolving apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), has built a sanctuary for his fellow apes, a place they can all call home in the peaceful mountains outside San Francisco. However, just when they think humans might be gone for good, they stumble upon some on a mountain path. In their panic, the humans shoot one of the apes’ sons, creating tension between the two factions. Back in quarantined San Francisco, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) tells their own leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), what they saw: talking apes in mass numbers. Dreyfus brushes this off as panicked hysteria, but soon finds his words to be true when the apes appear in front of them, demanding segregation. They’ll fight if they have to, but they would prefer peace, achieved by keeping the humans in the city and the apes in the mountains. This arrangement isn’t ideal for the humans, however, because they are running out of power and need to fix the dam in the mountains. Despite some skepticism, Caesar agrees to let them fix it, but each side is uncomfortable with the other and their paranoia leads them down a path neither want to travel.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” does a remarkable thing. Whereas most movies create two clear factions, one good and one bad, this one balances both masterfully, to the point where there is no distinct good or bad side. Each of those sides has good and bad characters, those that try to prevent war and others that try to perpetuate it, but it’s not always a case of this side being right and that side being wrong. All are simply trying to survive in a new and mysterious world, so you come to care about both humans and apes, wishing hard for a peaceful outcome, but knowing the outcome is predetermined.

At its core, this is a film about family, in both the literal sense and in the camaraderie the two species have with their own kind. Each are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their families safe, neither wanting to go to war, but both willing to if they must. What “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” lacks in thematic depth, it more than makes up for with these wonderfully well written characters—the best written in the entire series—which leads way to an incredibly moving story that proceeds the way it does not simply because the screenplay calls for it, but because the characters onscreen have developed realistic motivations based on the experiences they had before.

This gives the action that follows more meaning than your typical summer fare. Only briefly does the story take a backseat to that action before it catches back up and gives it some narrative context. The death and destruction that erupts is heartbreaking due to the film’s delicate handling of its characters, which continues through these breathtaking action sequences, including a steady cam single take on top of a tank that is enough to impress even non-film enthusiasts who don’t usually notice those types of visual touches.

If you’re a fan of the original films and are looking for some meaning in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” you’ll find some, but it’s nothing as interesting as the franchise’s previous thematic endeavors. You’ll get those themes of segregation, submission, control through fear and more, but we’ve seen these ideas before in other, more thematically focused films. Instead, this movie focuses on its finely tuned, character driven story, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you go in looking for something that ultimately isn’t there, you’ll leave happy after seeing what is.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes receives 4.5/5

Friday
Jun272014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

As I walked into my screening for the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a giant standup poster greeted me, touting my upcoming experience as the first film shot with the IMAX 3D Digital Camera, which means that sequences shot with it are presented in an IMAX aspect ratio that gives around 26% more image than the standard aspect ratio you would get in a normal movie theater. This is such a big selling point that even the actual film itself was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes look of shooting with the camera. It’s an interesting nugget of information for film enthusiasts and provides some exciting possibilities for future filmmakers, but it must be said: more than a new camera is needed to fix the “Transformers” franchise. A lot more.

The “Transformers” movies have always relished on the absurd. They typically take a small amount of time to set up what some might consider a story (thin though they may be) to give what follows some context, and if you’ve seen one, you know what follows is action, action and more action. The movies feel like something a 10 year old would dream up if given a camera and $200 million to play with. Appropriately, a poster with a quote from Albert Einstein on it appears early on in “Age of Extinction.” “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” it says. This quote is a fitting description of Bay’s talent: he has plenty of imagination, but, aside from an uncanny ability to film destruction, no filmmaking knowledge.

Evidence of this comes in the way he directs his actors. This time, Bay replaces Shia LaBeouf with Mark Wahlberg, a recent Oscar nominee, but the result is the same. His performance, along with the majority of the rest of the cast, is wooden. Only Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar put forth a modicum of effort, likely because their talent and veteran statuses require less input from a director to be effective, but the former is given horrendous dialogue and a narrative arc that makes zero sense while the latter plays the most cliché government villain character you can imagine. The two are in cahoots, naturally, with Tucci’s character being the business mogul responsible for engineering a man-made Transformer (and if the movies have taught us anything, it’s that playing God is a bad idea) and Grammar’s CIA Black Ops character finding and killing all Autobots to give Tucci the transformium elements he needs (which is only a slightly better element name than the unobtainable unobtainium from “Avatar”). Their plan that creates the central story has something to do with building a Transformer army to protect US citizens, but let’s be honest, what does it matter?

Frankly, the story itself hardly even exists, as it comes off more like a dialogue dump than anything else. I haven’t seen a film with so much expositional dialogue in a movie with such a meaningless story in a long time. It’s one of those films where characters will ask a question about what’s going on, only for another character to go on a five minute monologue explaining every plot element up to that point. In a very real sense, “Age of Extinction” feels like it’s written by a first time screenwriter, someone who has no idea how to craft believable situations or dialogue. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given that it was written by Ehren Kruger, the man responsible for the worst “Scream” entry and the messes that are “The Brothers Grimm,” “The Skeleton Key” and the previous two “Transformers” movies. His writing combines with Bay’s underwhelming direction to create a film that has no flow and is thematically and narratively empty.

The best example comes with Wahlberg’s character’s poorly developed relationship with his daughter, Tessa, played by Nicola Peltz. Primarily, this is due to the fact that she, despite being only 17 in the movie, exists solely as eye candy and as a means to be abducted and saved like the helpless woman she was written to be, the Princess Peach to Wahlberg’s Mario. The movie forces in some single father shtick, like when he complains that her shorts are too short, but it never comes off as authentic (and he certainly doesn’t make her change those shorts, as that would ruin the upcoming close-up butt shot the young actress was cast in the movie for). The other characters don’t fare so well either, with the minor ones being too underdeveloped or too annoying to be interesting (“Thank God” a fellow critic whispered in my ear after one of the more grating characters bit the dust).

If there’s one thing Michael Bay knows (and if his past filmography is any indication, it is indeed only one thing), it’s action, but even that is a bit of a letdown here. After three previous movies, each one more bombastic than the last, with the third installment upping the stakes as the end of the trilogy, this feels light in comparison and is sporting a very evident “been there, done that” feel. Only the Dinobots offer up any excitement, but they show up so late in the film’s exhausting two hour and 45 minute runtime that they still fail to make much of an impression, no doubt due to the fact that you will likely be so worn down by the endless slog that came before. Characterization here is the thinnest this franchise has ever seen, believe it or not, so the vapid action is inconsequential, as there’s approximately zero reasons to care if any of these characters succumb to the destruction around them.

If that isn’t enough, “Age of Extinction” has some of the most shameless product placement in a movie since “Talladega Nights,” but at least the product placement fit into the context of that movie. Here, you’ll get nice, clean close-ups of Oreos, Beats by Dre speakers, Gucci sunglasses, Bud Light cans (one of which Wahlberg violently cracks open and chugs after slamming into and destroying one of its transportation vehicles) and even a plug for Victoria’s Secret, which is featured prominently on a bus that is completely destroyed, except for the front where the logo is, of course. I wonder if Bay thought us dumb enough to not notice these things. More likely, the incompetency with which this train wreck was put together was simply creating to its own level; “Texas, USA” flashes onscreen at one point to set the location, as if the country designator was necessary.

At 90 minutes, Bay’s brand of mindless, plotless action may be tolerable, but “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is nearly double that length, an absurd 165 minutes, the longest entry in a franchise already known for being a bloated, meandering mess. This is the second worst of the films, rising only slightly above 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” if only due to the fact that at least this one (arguably) isn’t racist. That’s faint praise, to be sure, but I must admit, when watching a “Transformers” movie, it’s not easy finding the high points.

Transformers: Age of Extinction receives 0.5/5